Spaces, Poetics and Voids


Simone Pizzagalli

A void can be the result of a voluntary act that establishes a number of complex spatial relationships and formal consequences; or, conversely, it can be the accidental outcome of a specific form or act of representation. A void may be the consequence of a process of subtraction or erasure, destruction or cutting. For artists Lucio Fontana and Gordon Matta-Clark, the void represented part of their artistic practice since it constitutes a specific formal approach to the idea of absence and its spatial, conceptual representation. The void as a technique involves precise procedures that are relatively similar and always involve the action of cutting. As an act that creates a void, the cut in Fontana’s case aims to violate and reveal specific spatial qualities of matter, whereas in the work of Matta-Clark the aim is the preservation of the qualities found in the city and in complex architectural compositions.[4] 4 - The theme of the void as an element capable of preserving certain urban characteristics and at the same time evoking infinite possible urban forms is strongly present in Wim Wenders’ idea of the modern city; in particular, with reference to Berlin: ‘[…] When I filmed Himmel über Berlin, I took shots of the paths created by people passing by, nobody had traced them, people chose to pass there. In the film, when the children were playing in an absence of organised places for games, they were free. The voids that I defend, the city spaces that for me make the city alive, are these.’ And again: ‘[…] you don’t only have to create new buildings but also spaces for freedom: free and empty space in order to conserve the equilibrium of voids, so that the overabundance does not render invisible the world that surrounds us.’ From: C. Lamberti, ‘La Città di Berlino nel cinema di Ruttmann e Wenders’ (09.12.2001) [, accessed on 11 April 2011].

Fontana challenged the concept of pictorial surface by physically cutting it and therefore literally creating a rupture, a void, as a ‘spatial concept’, transforming the flat monochrome surface of what was simply a canvas into something completely different. The margins of the cuts bent and curved towards the created voids, turning a flat surface into a three-dimensional object. This act of cutting triggers a completely new and unexpected set of relationships between the edge of the cut, the surface, and the dark mysterious inner space behind and beyond it. Acknowledging the materiality of the canvas reveals its concrete and tangible nature and the specific spatial relationships happening between its surface and the perimeter of the cut. The complex system of meanings, spatial relations and mythical evocations set up in the resulting piece of art are all woven together in an act performed in space and time. This performance and its constituent elements have been captured in a sequence of photos[5] 5 - The photographs shot in Milan by Ugo Mulas in 1964 portray the process of creating the painting L’Attesa. The photographer describes the artist’s actions, though rapid and concluded in a few seconds, as something more precise, more complex than mere movements, something more than an operation: a real ‘moment’ worth photographing. ‘…Forse fu la presenza di un quadro bianco, grande, con un solo taglio appena finito. Quel quadro mi fece capire che l’operazione mentale di Fontana (che si risolveva praticamente in un attimo, nel gesto di tagliare la tela) era assai piu’ complessa e il gesto conclusivo non la rivelava che in parte. Vedendo un quadro di buchi, un quadro di tagli, e’ facile immaginare Fontana mentre fa il taglio o i buchi con un punteruolo, ma questo non lascia capire l’operazione che e’ più precisa e non e’ solo una operazione, ma un momento particolare, un momento che capivo di dover fotografare…’ From: U. Mulas, La Fotografia (Torino: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1973). that show Fontana slowly approaching the canvas, studying the surface, choosing a spot and cutting the material with precision and an awareness of the pressure, position and trajectory of himself as the cutter. The sequence of images tells us not only about the composition of the freshly created spatial relations on the white surface, but also how the voids are bound to time and space and, most importantly, how the action of the artist takes place at a precise instant, with a deliberate and determined sequence of movements, and is then frozen in time and space.

Matta-Clark cut buildings that were either destined to be demolished or substituted. For him and the group of artists involved in this kind of intervention on real objects ‘[…] Cutting is an act of conservation. Cutting an anonymous building means preserving it forever, and with it the life of the persons who were living there’ (Richard Nonas). The buildings were not only preserved, but also rendered even more precise in terms of their spatial characteristics, scale, presence in the city, ‘inside versus outside’ relationship, construction and use. This type of cut can be considered as a formalist act of estrangement[6] 6 - The same theme is discussed in the book Art as Technique by Viktor Shklovsky. Here the formalist goal of the artistic act performed on reality is to make the object ‘unfamiliar’ and thus perceived in a new way by the spectator due to its transformation into an art object. from the object’s specific form and function: the artist provides an entry point to an understanding of the object-building, revealing part of its hidden elements, drawing attention to the inside spaces by making them visible from the outside, and reducing them to a non-usable composition of spaces. The cut reveals the complexity of the volumes through a new and unexpected perspective, transforming the object’s ‘good form’, as Umberto Eco described it in his book The Open Work; namely, the static, perfect shape that satisfies the mind and the aesthetic perception of the viewer. The cut becomes a source of stimuli for the mind and the imagination. It starts a process of assemblage using different sets of information gathered from the object, composing these into new surreal forms, and imagining stories unfolding within the boundaries of this newly created void. The geometrically-shaped voids are apprehended as even more substantial elements than the building itself: they seem to be recognised and formalised in the viewer’s mind even before she becomes conscious of the construction materials the building is made of, the spaces it once contained, the relationships between these or their former use. The voids become sites where meanings originate, places where the history and myths of the building can be unfolded and understood. As I said at the beginning of this essay with reference to the map of the Great Fire of London, this recognition of the formal and historical explanatory quality of the void can be compared with the analytic reading and re-composition of a structure via the perception of the void. Hence the void within the urban fabric is simultaneously a manifestation of the formal values of the now-interrupted city structure, and a collector of new narratives to complete it. A similar process towards imaginative completeness can be observed when the mind becomes lost in the poetic ‘de-collage’ of partially demolished buildings found within the complexity of a metropolis, with their exposed traces of everyday use, the memories and residue of family talks, echoing words, mealtimes and sleep in spaces that were once kitchens and bedrooms but are now perceived as almost unrecognisable fragments of a multidimensional past.

Matta-Clark’s interest in emptiness and voids was not limited to cutting openings into existing structures, it also included research related to abandonment and forgetting within city structures and daily routines: ‘[…] we were more interested, from a metaphorical point of view, in voids, gaps, abandoned spaces, undeveloped places, etc. For example the places where you stop to tie your shoes, places that are interrupting your everyday movements.’ For the An-architecture[7] 7 - An-Architecture is the name of a group of artists (Laurie Anderson, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Bernard Kirschenbaum, Richard Landry, Gordon Matta-Clark and Richard Nonas) active in New York during the 1970s. ‘We knew it had to be a kind of “anti” name, but that by itself seemed just too easy. And we were not at all clear what the second half – the cultural thing to push the “anti” against – should be. Architecture did not start out being the main point for any of us, even for Gordon. But we soon realized, however, that architecture could be used to symbolize all the hard-shelled cultural reality we meant to push against, and not just building of “architecture” itself. That was the context in which Gordon came up with the term an-architecture. And that, perhaps, suggests the meaning we all gave it.’ Richard Nonas, letter to the IVAM, August 1992, in: Gordon Matta-Clark, exhibition catalogue, IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez (Valencia: 1993), p. 374. From: [accessed on 11 April 2011]. group of artists, collecting, intervening in, and preserving those spaces from disappearance, drawing them into a structured artistic representation, was a way of proposing a critical alternative to the commonly accepted concepts of architecture, urban planning and the American myth of land ownership. At the same time, this interest led them to conduct experiments that produced new forms of representation and interpretation of the emptiness of those forgotten and fragmented places in the city.[8] 8 - I am referring more specifically to the Fake Estates project, which took place during the 1970s in New York. This approach, which considered metropolitan leftover spaces as important idiosyncratic elements within the structure of the urban fabric, was, despite the novelty and polemical nature of the intervention, more similar to an act of editing aimed at stimulating public awareness about the subject in hand, than an actual project to reconstruct formal meanings in the city. The spaces were re-presented, juxtaposed, but never really subject to a compositional or formal interpretation. As for other works by Matta-Clark – especially his photographic representation of the acts of cutting – the work of art was translated into yet another new one, this time made of paper, texts, images, and collaged assortments of information. The work became subject to a journalistic ‘reportage’ and, as it became part of an information and narration process, it became something different, estranged from its own original physical presence: something independent, though similarly doomed to disappear without any capacity to transform reality.

Several other examples can be given, albeit partial and inconclusive ones, on how the void may be expressed as a negation, an accumulation of traces, or an erasure of an existing structure, as well as how, in more architectonic terms, this concept of absence can be embodied by a spatial composition of elements (and therefore positively, in the sense of ‘constructing an absence’). The Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena designed by Aldo Rossi is exemplary in its opposition of void and space and the way these are taken into account in a complex and articulated public building. Both Aldo Rossi in his Scientific Autobiography, and Rafael Moneo in the interpretative essay ‘Aldo Rossi: The Idea of Architecture and the Modena Cemetery’, describe part of the building as an example of an architecture and a spatial composition aimed at expressing an absence; namely, the expressive power of lifeless spaces where time is suspended, where relationships are no longer possible and where memories are represented in the silent, hollow and lonely spaces of the cemetery buildings. The representation of the idea of loss and absence is embodied in the composition of the architecture, which is based on references capable of generating both memories and feelings of abandonment and emptiness. For the Italian architect, the ‘empty house’ exemplifies a building where any ongoing personal narration is impossible, but where traces of past events and human interaction are still visible. In the Modena cemetery, Rossi is referring to ‘[…] the Roman Tomb of the Baker, an abandoned factory, an empty house.’ In these kinds of buildings, spaces are empty and unused yet filled with traces of events that happened at various times in the past, and whose characteristics, qualities and unfolding within the spatial composition we can only try to imagine, while remaining unable to understand or be part of them. For Rossi, this is especially true when a house has been abandoned, when personal stories have ended unresolved, or when someone has died: ‘I also saw death in the sense of “no one lives here any more” and hence as regret, since we do not know what our relations with this person were, and yet we still search for him in some way.’

The central building of the Modena cemetery is therefore the bearer of meanings of loss and detachment, but also of expectation, and a tension straining towards something tangible yet not completely intelligible – where the possibility of a completed narration is negated, and so instead is represented by suspended and surreal spaces. Lack and absence are the ingredients of a composition imbued with profound meanings and capable of explicating them in a truly spatial and architectural way. In Fontana’s work or the instance of the Great Fire of London, a void can be either the result of a deliberate action or an accidental event; or again, as in Rossi’s cemetery, it may be determined by a composition that is able to represent, in an analogous way, the same meanings and formal consequences as the more direct, interpretative action of cut and rupture.

Several artists have developed their own techniques and skills to stretch the potential of the language of art toward the border between matter and absence, sound and silence, or language and a random juxtaposition of words.[9] 9 - A good bibliographical reference to this theme can be found in a short article by Giovanni Corbellini in which he analyses the impact and influence of the term ‘absence’ on the cultural production of the 20th century. In this schematic bibliography, the author focuses on the theme of void, absence and disappearance, and has created a history of this concept through research in different artistic and non-artistic fields. The article ‘Assenza’ by Giovanni Corbellini is published on the website
[, accessed on 9 April 2010.]
Though not directly related to this topic, a relevant example of an intervention situated between land art, architecture and art is the famous Cretto by Alberto Burri, completed in the village of Gibellina (Sicily) in 1984.[10] 10 - Gibellina is a small town in Sicily. It was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1968 and reconstructed some kilometres away from its original location. Numerous artists and architects contributed to the reconstruction of the village including Ludovico Quaroni, Vittorio Gregotti and Franco Purini. By applying the technique of the cretto,[11] 11 - The Cretto technique consists in producing the natural formation of cracks and splits within a thick, dense pictorial or sculptural surface left drying in open air. the artist created a sculpture in the form of a vast spatial composition that people can physically experience and explore. In this way, the work of land art not only becomes a monument and thus a memory of a collective emotional state or event (the calamity of the earthquake that destroyed the village in 1968), but also a new set of interpretable elements, volumes and spaces that have been detached in a specific way from their former use. The concrete volumes and the chasms between them become a silent reminder of urban life, the visualisation of an absence that underlines the relationships between the urban fabric and its streets, since the limited height of the blocks allows visitors to walk both between and on top of them, thus emphasising the invisible relationship between a home’s interior environment, now destroyed, and the village’s public spaces. The composition allows the entire village to be viewed at a glance: a desolate space where events can be imagined to happen again within the frozen memory of a complex structure of forms and relationships.

As the examples above illustrate, making a cut can be regarded as an act that turns a number of formally defined spatial relationships into a temporal state of potentialities, while simultaneously maintaining them in a state of abstract otherness. The cut freezes the meanings and formal qualities of a space and its collected temporal layers of narratives, while opening them up to new interpretations in both a conceptual and physical way. The act of cutting and the creation of an absence, both characterised by the disclosure of a set of traces and non-interpretable fragments and boundaries, can therefore be considered a point of connection between the concepts of void and space. The action of cutting is a technique that allows the formal relationship between an absence and a defined space to occur and become tangible, mediated (as it was for Fontana) by a deliberate, interpretative act performed to alter reality. This act can be recorded as a sequence of operations, an ordered and precise syntax of steps that allows these formal relations to be achieved, culminating in a suspension of sense or non-sense that will form the basis for a new construction of meaning. This syntax,[12] 12 - Syntax: from Greek, syn = together, taxis = sequence, together in a sequence, the arrangement and conjunction of phrases and sentences. established through a sequence – a collection of moments, movements and fragments, arranged according to defined, though arbitrary motivations – permits the creation of a continuity of elements which, within the same sequence, the same narrative logic, and in the created or acknowledged void, will make room for the development of form. Beyond the deconstructive intention of using the technique of cutting to create an absence and expose a set of fragments, a further, more complex construction of sense is possible: the narration of forms and meanings within a spatial interpretation of reality, as occurs in Rossi’s cemetery. Space once again becomes the repository of a narrative of forms and spatial relationships; the architectural project constitutes the tangible element that re-establishes a meaning within the chaos of the metropolis, a meaning situated somewhere between interpretation and preservation, void and space, form and fragmentation.


TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture